‘Professional Triumph, Personal Failure’? Stigma and the Single Career Woman.


Today I came across yet another pejorative reference to single career women, this time in a demographic article about contemporary marriage patterns in China. The authors describe the term ‘leftover ladies’ (shengnü), used by the media in China to label women who remain single. They note this gendered, stigmatizing term is regardless of the fact that the urban, highly educated women who are most likely to remain single after 30 ‘may choose to do so in response to undesirable gender roles in Chinese society’[1]. As someone who has researched singleness amongst women in the UK, what struck me was how familiar this negative depiction of educated single women is, despite the very different social contexts.

Several cultural studies scholars have analysed the hypervisibility of the white, heterosexual and financially secure single woman in Western popular culture in recent decades. The widespread popularity and international reach of characters such as Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw may be seen as a type of cultural affirmation of the new single woman; nevertheless, as Anthea Taylor argues, single women are rarely represented as reconciled with their singleness, and the most visible representation seems to be their wish to ‘unsingle’[2]. Despite an apparently positive shift in representations of single women, from spinster to Singleton, a prevalent theme is evident – that of the ‘professional triumph, personal failure’ of the single career woman. The not so subtle subtext is that women who achieve career success are failing at what they really aspire to – a successful romantic relationship.

Several authors have interpreted representations of single women in popular culture, as well as media stories about ‘man shortages’ and ‘spinster booms’, as indicative of social anxieties about women’s increasing independence[3]. Women may be financially independent, yet by so doing they risk becoming ‘leftover ladies’. In doing my own research on contemporary never-married women, I came across much historical work that demonstrates such anxieties are far from new. For example, Judith Spicksley’s research on single women involved in money lending in the first half of the seventeenth century argues that invective aimed at spinsters was a response to the high proportions of single women with economic autonomy emerging in the wake of the Civil War. Alongside moves in the economic and political spheres that resulted in a diminution of the rights of single women to work and to own property, it was in the sphere of culture that single women were subject to the greatest onslaught, with singleness depicted as unwomanly[4]. Historical research by Martha Vicinus identifies anxieties about the ‘problem’ of ‘surplus’ women in the Victorian period: she cites an article from 1862 by the prolific social commentator W.R. Greg, titled ‘Why Are Women Redundant’, in which he expresses concern about the increasing incidence of spinsterhood. This “unwholesome social state” was productive of “much wretchedness and wrong”, especially for those middle and upper class women who, “not having the natural duties and labours of wives and mother, have to carve out artificial and painfully-sought occupations for themselves; who, in place of completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others, are compelled to lead an independent and incomplete existence of their own”[5].

Depictions of the single woman who pursues career success at the cost of a romantic relationship are also not only evident in our media. Academic work which assumes the necessity and centrality of romantic coupledom also implicitly problematises those outside this. This is often explicitly so in relation to singleness for women, with the single career women in particular likely to be depicted as pitiable or blameworthy. Thus, influential sociological theorising on contemporary family change refers to an emerging problem “affecting those women who pursue an independent career but in most cases pay a high price, the loneliness of the professionally successful woman”[6].

What is the effect of such negative depictions? Rates of singleness continue to rise – and interestingly at working age are usually higher for men, rarely subject to the same scrutiny. In recent decades there have been an increasing number of empirical studies which seek to understand the experience of singleness from the perspective of single women themselves. Alongside this, an exponential rise in online blogs has seen single women writing about their experiential knowledge of the benefits and challenges of singleness. Scholars analysing these blogs suggest these represent the emergence of new oppositional voices, with women articulating singlehood from a confident and unapologetic position[7]. Depicting oneself as contentedly single is a form of resistance to prevalent discourses of singleness as ‘personal failure’. As Anthea Taylor notes, such accounts show that “the scripts limiting the way women experience and make sense of their singleness are able to be rewritten”. I look forward to seeing more representations of ‘satisfied singles’ in both media and academic scholarship, an alternative to the long-standing trope of ‘leftover ladies’.

Roona Simpson, Lecturer in Social Sciences Research Methods, University of Glasgow.


[1] Qian, Y. And Qian, Z. (2014) The Gender Divide In Urban China: Singlehood And Assortative Mating By Age And Education, Demographic Research Volume 31, Article 45, Pages 1337–1364.

[2] Taylor, A. (2012). Single women in popular culture: The limits of postfeminism. Palgrave Macmillan. See also Negra, D. (2004). Quality postfeminism?. Sex and the Single Girl on HBO. Genders, 39, 1-16.

[3][3] For example see Faludi, S. (1992) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, London, UK: Chatto and Windus; Whelehan, I. (2000) Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism. London, UK: Women’s Press

[4] Spicksley, J. (2001) ‘The Early Modern Demographic Dynamic: Celibates And Celibacy In Seventeenth-Century England’, PhD diss., University of Hull.

[5] Cited in Vicinus, M. (1988). Independent Women: work and community for single women, 1850-1920. University of Chicago Press.

[6] Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995) The Normal Chaos Of Love, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

[7] See for example Lahad, K. (2014) The Single Woman’s Choice as a Zero-Sum Game, Cultural Studies, 28:2, and Taylor, A. (2012). Single women in popular culture: The limits of postfeminism. Palgrave Macmillan.


One thought on “‘Professional Triumph, Personal Failure’? Stigma and the Single Career Woman.

  1. Pingback: Why, for One Woman, It's Hard Being a (Christian) Woman Sometimes - Urban Christian News

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